The Editor-Writer, Part I

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:49 PM

Lessons on making what you write and edit for others more useful and meaningful.

By Peter P. Jacobi

I know writing is more my beat for Editors Only, but I've been thinking a lot about editing. Those of us who primarily write also edit, and those of us who devote most of our time to editing also write.

My thoughts have reminded me about how much width there is to editing responsibilities. I'd like to discuss editing's various aspects with you, from my perspective.

Some of my thoughts were prompted by a book recently added to my collection: Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baig (Writers Digest Books) and also by some wisdoms that I heard at this summer's workshops given by the Highlights Foundation, happenings I've been involved with for about thirty summers and from which, often, I've brought you reflections.

Be Clear

We all know the basics that we must attend to, even in the most utilitarian form of editing; that is to get the copy right: to aim slavishly for accuracy, brevity, and -- of course -- clarity. That's demanding enough, but, at least some of the time, we get involved in more complicated forms, for literary or societal or academic or policy purposes, dealing with copy designed for special audiences and reasons.

No matter what we edit and for whom and why, we must work diligently to make copy grammatical and spelling-right and featuring punctuation that properly serves the English language. I repeat the word clarity because if the copy isn't made clear, nothing else matters. The battle is lost. The reader is lost. What you've gone through must make sense, immediately and completely so.

Self-Edit

I believe if you are writing, while you do so, you should begin to edit yourself in the process of producing the copy. I trust you do some careful reading of that copy also when you've completed the draft. And I further trust that -- as I've recommended through our long years together -- that you read your copy out loud so that not only your eyes but your ears attend to the work together, a much more successful way to assure that the writing ends up correct and sounding natural. The eyes alone are less likely to do the thorough task that the eyes and ears can accomplish together.

I'd then suggest for whatever you're editing that, if you can, you set the copy aside, engage in other copy or other activities, and return to the story a day later, so to see and hear it with fresh eyes and ears (and mind). That will really help you catch matters that are wrong or just aren't working.

Leave No Questions

These days, more than ever, brevity is called for, but be very careful that the copy you have edited is complete, that you've done your mightiest to not have a reader later say, "There's something missing here," or "I'm confused. I guess I better go through that again," a decision he or she is not always going make.

Completeness comes in two forms: informational and journalistic.

The first is impossible to achieve; there's always more information available than you can possibly use. Besides, remember there's that iceberg theory to apply, meaning that while you have an entire informational iceberg at your disposal, use only the one-seventh portion above water.

Journalistic completeness is what the editor aims for: coming up with copy that makes the reader believe he or she is getting everything necessary; that no needed facts seemingly are missing. I call that atmospheric completeness. Leave no questions except those the writer has intended for reader contemplation.

Add Interest

When we get beyond utilitarian editing, we begin to deal with the beauty of our language, the colors and rhythms, the nuances and the music that leave more lasting impressions with the reader. This may be improper for your publication, but I wouldn't just automatically ignore the possibility of using artier aspects available from within the craft of writing. A touch of that here and there, craftily used, can add interest and pleasure to one's reading.

Next time we'll look into following policy, knowing your own limits, and visionary editing.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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Surveys: What're They Good For?

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:49 PM

A rundown of perspectives from several editors.

By William Dunkerley

Editors gave us off-the-cuff comments on their experiences with surveys. We were interested in when they last conducted one, whether the responses produced any surprises, and if concrete changes were made at their publications as a result of the latest survey.

PT in Motion

Editor and lead editor/writer Donald Tepper told us his goal is to conduct a survey every three years. His last one was five years ago, however.

He explains:

"Our publisher is a professional association, and the association is constantly sending out surveys (membership services, legislative, etc.) to members. For the past two years, the association has deemed other surveys to be more important than ours."

What does Tepper seek from his surveys?

"Broadly speaking, we want to know what our members are interested in reading.

"We ask questions about which departments and columns they most like, and which they like the least. We ask about different themes of feature articles -- again, what they like most and what they like least. We want to know whether they prefer reading our magazine to our competitors'. How much of each magazine do they read?

"Because we've got a very diverse membership (educators, clinicians, and researchers is one way to break it down; another is students, early practitioners, and mature practitioners; another is different job titles and licensing criteria -- physical therapists vs. physical therapist assistants), we try to analyze the responses from these different groups.

"We also want to determine what types of information readers want to receive from the magazine, versus other means of communication (emails, newsletters, webinars, etc.)."

Tepper's results came in pretty much as expected. Others in his organization may have been looking for different results, he remarked. But overall they seem satisfied (or even pleased), he concluded.

PT in Motion has undergone a number of changes, but just in part as a result of his survey. Tepper explains:

"We've allowed some of our articles to run longer. A long time ago (15-plus years ago), our features used to be quite long -- 4,000–5,000 words, sometimes. Then there was an attempt to shorten the features. First to about 3,500 words. Then less. Then less. Partly, it was to save pages. Partly, it was because of the perceived effect of online articles, which are measured in the hundreds of words, not the thousands.

"When we got down below 2,500, we started getting some mild complaints noting that the articles weren't in-depth enough. By the time we were down to 2,000 words, there was some clear unhappiness from some of our readers. We're now averaging approximately 2,800 words, with some at 4,000 or longer. We came to realize that a magazine is well suited to long-form pieces."

There are two main points Tepper recommends to editors who are considering a survey.

--Don't let the questionnaire get too long, lest responses drop off.

--Don't just focus on your own magazine; also probe the other ways in which readers receive information.

PM Magazine

At ICMA, publications director Ann Mahoney uses surveys not only for editorial feedback, but also to confirm that readers of PM Magazine are predominantly in her organization's target group: decision makers for local government purchasing. Her most recent survey was last summer (2017).

One overwhelming impression she received from the survey is that "young professionals are not sufficiently represented." The magazine's editor will address that issue, she says.

Another thing: "We received more comments requesting in-depth treatment of topics than we've had in past surveys. In the past comments were strongly in favor of short, practical, bullet-organized articles. In this Twitter era, this result (i.e., wanting more in-depth articles) was surprising."

County News

Executive editor Beverly Schlotterbech last surveyed in 2012. She wanted to gauge reader interest in switching to digital-only. (County News has been published in both print and digital versions.) The answer? "There is more support for digital-only than expected, but significant groups within our readership prefer print." As a result, no changes have been made.

UC Magazine

John Bach, managing editor of UC Magazine, a university publication, looks into what impact his magazine actually has on readers. He reports, "We ask very specific questions about what the issue prompted them to do. For example, did it inspire them to discuss the university with others, donate, or recommend a potential student?" Bach's last survey was conducted last March.

He says, "There are definite trends from our surveys that have influenced our content types. For example, readers have indicated how much they like clean and open design, so we've begun using larger images in our spreads. Also, our readers are really into campus history and images of campus, so we try to include those types of favorite content in each issue."

Bach strongly advocates that editors conduct surveys. He elucidated, "If you aren't surveying your readers, you are missing out on an enormous opportunity. How else do you know if you are meeting reader needs with your publication?"

Vacation Better

Senior editor/director of pubs Kathryn Mullan did her publication's last survey in 2014. Her biggest takeaway was disappointment in the level of response. It was less than 3 percent.

She bemoans, "That survey was a free, online barter agreement we did with a member of ours. It yielded meager results. For the previous survey in 2007, we paid a firm $10,000 to handle it for us (mail and online) and got much better feedback and response -- with data we could actually use. My advice to others is to invest in this type of firm to handle the survey for you; you get what you pay for!"

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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The Fog Index

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:48 PM

Assessing the readability of an excerpt from TheAtlantic.com.

This month's Fog Index sample text comes from a September 11 TheAtlantic.com piece ("A Simple Way to Bring Down College-Application Costs" by James S. Murphy"). Here's the text, with longer words italicized:

"It is difficult to calculate the degree to which score fees prevent low-income students from going to a school that is a good fit, but a recently published paper by the University of Pittsburgh's Lindsay Page and several other researchers, including one from the College Board, shows several positive effects of the 'anytime' option. After the option was implemented in 2007, data suggest, students who would've otherwise only sent four scores were now sending eight. In other words, before the change, there was a cohort of students who wanted to apply more widely but had been held back by the cost. Perhaps most tellingly, the study showed that the policy change correlated with greater college-completion rates among the same cohort, potentially because applying to more schools meant they found a better institutional fit."

Word count: 133 words
Average sentence length: 33 words (54, 21, 26, 32)
Words with 3+ syllables: 11 percent (15/133 words)
Fog Index: (33+11) *.4 = 17 (17.6, no rounding)

By now, you've read enough Fog Index columns to spot likely culprits at a glance when the score is high. The length of the first sentence (54 words) should jump right out at you. We have a longer sample than usual (133 words), yet it's only split into four sentences. Let's see if we can cut through the Fog enough to shave at least 6 points from the score.

"It is tough to measure the degree to which score fees prevent low-income students from going to a school that is a good fit. A recent paper by the University of Pittsburgh's Lindsay Page and several other researchers, including one from the College Board, shows several benefits of the 'anytime' option. After the option was implemented in 2007, data suggest, students who would've only sent four scores were now sending eight. In other words, before the change, there was a cohort of students who wanted to apply more widely but had been held back by the cost. Perhaps most tellingly, the study showed that the new option correlated with greater college-completion rates among the same cohort. Potentially, applying to more schools meant they found a better institutional fit."

Word count: 128 words
Average sentence length: 21 words (24, 27, 20, 26, 19, 12)
Words with 3+ syllables: 8 percent (10/128 words)
Fog Index: (21+8) *.4 = 11 (11.6, no rounding)

It took some doing, but we were able to rework the text to be 6 points lighter. Our main objective was to increase the total sentence count, and we were able to make 6 sentences where there had been 4. This got us most of the way there, but we were still shy of our goal (a score below 12). To push ourselves across the finish line we targeted a few longer words for replacement, and this did the trick.

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Rash of Editorial Departures

Posted on Thursday, September 28, 2017 at 2:48 PM

In the news: Several prominent editors are leaving their magazine posts this month.

Earlier this month, several top editors at major magazine publishers announced their departures. According to Folio:, Time magazine editor Nancy Gibbs (the first woman to serve in the role), Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, and Robbie Myers of Elle all are leaving their posts. CNN also reports that Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, is also leaving. Read more about their departures here and here.

Why so many high-profile exits? Most of the above editors cited personal reasons for leaving, but other editors are speculating nonetheless. It's been a tumultuous decade in publishing for many magazine brands, with perpetual layoff cycles, ever-shrinking budgets, and general upheaval in the industry. "To be clear," writes CNN's Brian Stelter, "the [departing] editors haven't specifically cited cost-cutting in their announcements.... But it's hard not to see something deeper in the various decisions -- a conclusion that there are even more hard times ahead for publishers." Read more here and here.

Also Notable

The Future of Magazines

The aforementioned departures raise a lot of questions about the overall state of the industry. In a September 23 NYTimes.com piece ("The Not-So-Glossy Future of Magazines"), Sydney Ember and Michael M. Grynbaum discuss the recently announced exit of Robbie Myers from Elle in the larger context of the current magazine landscape. About the state of things in the larger industry, they write, "As publishers grasp for new revenue streams, a 'try-anything' approach has taken hold.... Increasingly, the longtime core of the business -- the print product -- is an afterthought, overshadowed by investments in live events, podcasts, video, and partnerships with outside brands." Read more here.

The Next Generation of (Digitally Savvy) Editors

With subscription rates flattening and newsstand sales declining, the high-profile editorial departures this month may speak to a core truth about the future of content production. "The Publishing Industry Knows 'Winter Is Coming,'" reads part of a September 15 AdWeek.com headline. In the article, Sami Main writes, "As The New York Times noted in the announcement of [Cindi] Leive's news, many of these core editors rose to prominence during an age before the notion of personal brands. Magazines were reporting the news and interest pieces, not making a name for themselves across many social media platforms. Neither were their editors." Digitally savvy editors, she argues, are the next generation. Read more here.

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